The House of the Turtle at Uxmal
I have always had a special feeling about turtles. That comes from having lived at the edge of a desert for the last half century suffering from a chronic lack of rain. I strongly suspect that the Maya of the Puuc Hills (redundant: Hill Hills the way that Torpenhow Hill in England means Hillhillhill Hill) felt the same way. One of the simplest, most classical and beautiful structures at Uxmal if the House of the Turtle.
It is named after the row of carved turtles that appear along the top edge:
Detail of Carved Turtle
As I have mentioned previously, the hills of the Puuc are separated from the underground rivers of the Yucatán Peninsula by several hundred feet of impenetrable limestone. The Maya of the Puuc had to dig cisterns (called chultunes) which they hoped would fill with water during the rainy season. In good years, they did. But when a series of dry years came in the Ninth Century A.D., the Maya just walked away from Uxmal. Why obey the local god/king and get a hernia hauling stones to build new structures when they might easily die of hunger or thirst?
All the stones of Uxmal—and, for that matter, all the Maya sites—were hauled by human labor. There were no wheeled conveyances because there were no wheels, and what would be the point anyway when there were no draft animals to pull them over roads which they would have to build of other heavy rocks in the first place?
Looking Through the Two Doorways of the House of the Turtle at the Nunnery Quadrangle
When you think of it that way, you can understand why the Maya just walked away from their ceremonial centers and changed their way of government. It was a miracle that they allowed themselves to be used for so many hundreds of years hauling rocks and putting them into place—even creating such magnificent sites as Uxmal—for little reward in their hardscrabble lives.
The Maya who built Uxmal are still in the neighborhood: It’s just that they are not quite so much involved in major engineering projects. And their homes, if built of stone (or, more likely, cinder blocks) use trucks to do the heavy hauling.
My Guide, Jorge Mex, at the Governor’s Palace
At the key Maya ruins I visited, I hired a guide all to myself. It only cost a few hundred pesos for an hour or two, and it was worth it for the quality of information conveyed. At Uxmal, I sought out and hired Jorge Mex (pronounced Mesh), who had been recommended to me by Valerie Pickles, a hotelier at Santa Elena. I could have joined a group tour with a large crowd of ignoramuses who didn’t know the first thing about the Maya, but to have the time of someone who worked with the archeologists at digging and restoring the ruins is worth the extra cost.
As I said before, this was my fourth visit to Uxmal, but it has always ranked first with me; so it was worth the extra effort. At Chichen Itza, I was my own guide: Although Chichen is a spectacular site in many ways, I was less interested.
Double-Headed Jaguar Throne at the Governor’s Palace
Although there was a structure at Uxmal called the Governor’s Palace, there was no governor. There was, however, a king who ruled at the time the Palace was built: His name was Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw. Curiously, none of the other god/kings of Uxmal are known by name, according to Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s authoritative The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition). Unfortunately, the glyphs at Uxmal have been badly weathered.
Details of Carved Stones on the Governor’s Palace
Notice the square stones at the bottom of the above photo. They are characteristic of the Puuc (pronounced Pook) style of architecture. The word puuc in Maya means “hill.” The Puuc region included some five or six sites that were in the hill country in the south of the State of Yucatán, ranging up to six hundred feet (183 meters) above sea level. This made access to water for drinking and growing crops a bit of a problem, as the underground river system of the peninsula was too deep, and there were no nearby cenotes (sinkholes) allowing access to the water.
Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood
The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.
By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.
One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today
So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.
The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.
Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)
As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.
Next: The Palace of the Governor
Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today
When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.
In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.
Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood
On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:
The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician
On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.
Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.
Archway at Entrance to Santa Elena, Yucatán
I am frantically trying to get reservations to hotels in Yucatán—much later than I usually would. It is all due to the problem with my left knee. I wanted some assurance that it was not the beginning of a condition that might rapidly get worse. As a result, I am making reservations a month or so later than I usually would. Unfortunately, a lot of the places I wanted to stay have already been booked, even for such a small town as Santa Elena, which is midway between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. I may have to spend big money to stay at the Hacienda Uxmal at the ruins, where I stayed twice before in 1975 and 1992—that is, if I can.
No doubt I will find something. It’s just a little more work than usual.
The Luxurious Hacienda Uxmal Across the Street from the Ruins
The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal in Yucatán
I may have to delay my trip to Mexico until I know what’s happening with the pain in my knee. To refresh your memory, there is some sort of muscular pain in the crook of my left knee, initially diagnosed to be a Baker’s Cyst or some sort of tendonitis. With luck, I will be able to go at some point in January, unless the condition requires surgery.
In all, I have been to Uxmal twice, in 1975 and 1992. Both times, I have been impressed that it is the most beautiful of Maya ruins. It is built in the classical Puuc (named after the range of hills where it is located), with smooth rectangular limestone blocks interspersed with images of various Maya deities. It looks even better today, after archeologists have cleared away much of the foliage. Below is an image of the same structure around 1840 when Frederick Catherwood drew it:
Frederick Catherwood’s Illustration of the Pyramid
The city of Uxmal was occupied only up to some point in the 9th century AD, when it is speculated that drought made the ruins in the Puuc Hills uninhabitable. There are no above ground rivers in the limestone peninsula that is Yucatán, and the underground rivers would have required digging through hundreds of feet of rock. Instead, rain water was collected in chultunes, underground storage chambers that circled the ruins.
I was sold on Uxmal from the very start. The van that took me there stopped close by the Pyramid of the Magician. The driver bowed his head and did the sign of the cross upon setting eyes on the pyramid. It is still considered a sacred site by the Maya, even though they have not inhabited it for over a thousand years.